Is an engaged online community bad for their health?

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That is the suggestion of a new piece of research published recently in the Journal of Marketing Research.  

The study looked at the behaviour of those participating in the communities at Prosper.com (a lending website) and eBay.

It found that members of these communities had such a strong sense of belonging and security from being a member of these communities that it led them to making some risky financial decisions.

“Emerging evidence indicates that online community participation impacts many aspects of consumer behavior, and our findings reveal that this impact extends to financial decision-making,” says Utpal Dholakia, professor of management at Rice University.

“Participants in these sites somehow come to believe that their fellow community members will come to their aid when something goes wrong, but in reality, they are out there on their own and could suffer adverse consequences.”
 
For instance when they studied the community at Prosper.com, which is a peer to peer lending site similar to Zopa, took greater risks than non-members.  For instance they'd tend to lend their money to people with worse credit ratings and higher chance of default than would normal members of the public.
 
At eBay active community members were found to engage in riskier bidding behaviours.  They were proved to both bid more often and pay more money for the products they bought.
 
What's interesting is that the more active the person in the community, the riskier their behaviour became.  These effects were stronger when the point of the community was not social in nature.
 
“These communities are different from social networking sites like Facebook, because the individuals involved are usually strangers whose identities are unknown to the consumer,” Dholakia says.
 
As community managers we all want to have members that are highly engaged, but this new research casts a warning that all community managers should be aware of, especially in these financially heightened times.

 

6 thoughts on “Is an engaged online community bad for their health?

  1. Interesting findings. Whilst I enjoy interacting with people on various online communities, I'd like to think I'm grounded enough to know that their tie to me is pretty fleeting and they can't be relied on for real world issues.

  2. Generally speaking, I am not a fan of studies that separate online communities from offline communities; the fundamentals are the same, only the medium is different. If people feel they have a strong online support network and that results in risky behaviour, surely the same would be true for someone with a strong offline support network?

    • Thanks for the comment Martin and welcome to the blog. Suffice to say I can’t speak on behalf of the researchers, but what I took from the research was that there was a gap between perception and reality. With an offline network I suspect it would be much easier to tell if the support you thought you had could be relied upon. Maybe with an online community you think you have strong ties with people but those ties are really quite limited.

      Online networking is ideal for cultivating so called weak ties because less maintenance is required to maintain each connection. Whereas people we talk to regularly offline would likely be relied upon for emotional support however, the same cannot always be said for people we talk to regularly online. What do you think?

  3. Interesting but I'm thinking this probably applies to a relatively small proportion of communities. After all there can't be that many with financial implications like these two communities.

  4. Agree with your point that people may feel stronger ties to other members within an online community than is the reality, but there is a plus-side to this as well: engagement for good. Within a nonprofit's private online community, I suspect the close ties and deep engagement moves supporters to raise more funds, support each other deeply, and take more action than within communities that do not have deep engagement.

    • That's right Debra, in reality that level of engagement is something we're all striving for with our communities. Nevertheless it pays to be aware of the slightly darker side of such engagement so that we can hedge against members acting irresponsibly.

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